Born and raised in Dublin, James Joyce never published in his native Irish tongue. Despite his roots and even though his stories take place in Ireland,Ulysses, Dubliners, and his other works are not contributions to Irish literature. Written and published in English, like most of his work,1 Joyce’s novels are contributions to English literature.
The same can be said of many authors of renown who choose to forego writing in their mother tongue. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Vladimir Nabokov’sLolita are not contributions to Nigerian, Dominican, or Russian literatures, respectively; they are part of the English literature canon.
In writing and publishing in another language (without translation), the author loses a sense of him or herself. To put a finer point on the matter, the identity is not lost—it is stolen. That’s the case Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has made consistently since his seminal Decolonising the Mind(1986) and reinforces most recently in Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012). On April 24 in New York, he distilled his theory in a masterful conversation hosted by Warscapes at The New School University.
Authors experience literal identity theft, Ngũgĩ asserts, when they write in a language that is not their own. He speaks most passionately about this loss of identity for African writers, who adopt and write in the main European languages—English, French, German, and Spanish. This Europhone writing, he quipped in the hour-long discussion, includes anglophone, francophone, germanophone, hispanophone—“too many phonies.”